Thursday, November 5, 2015

Transportation Planning - How Projects Come to Fruition

The purpose of this blog post is to provide context for how and why transportation professionals do so much work surrounding the automobile. Further, the role of consultants in the transportation world will be discussed. And finally, example transportation projects and their relevance to the general populous will be explored. 
Why do Cities Exist?
Most humans reside in a City. People congregate in cities based on three primary arguments. Some experts claim cities were founded on a militaristic basis, because a consolidated and walled city is easier to defend. Others say cities were created because humans are social in nature; and therefore, we inherently like to live together and cooperate. Lastly, cities may be founded because of economic reasons. For example, coastal cities are natural trade hubs for their ability to transfer coastal-shipped goods for land-shipped goods. And since cities attract a dense concentration of people, they also induce transportation trips; and thus, the traffic of people, vehicles, and freight. Or crudely put: cities create traffic.

Cities and traffic itself were both radically changed by Industrialization. Not only were goods easier to produce, but now easier to move. And people desired to get around by other means instead of by walking or horse-drawn carriages. Technological innovations in the late 1800s provided electric-powered street cars providing a relatively cleaner, faster, and more reliable means to travel across the City.
For example, land developers in Portland not only built housing, but also laid rail and operated street cars as an incentive for future residents to live in their new developments. But while this type of development was profitable at the time, industrialization eventually created the marvel which most Americans adore today, the automobile. 
The Automobile
While Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, he invented the assembly line decreasing the cost of production enabling every middle-class American to own a car. The middle class loved cars because they provided superior mobility as compared with the fixed route nature of a streetcar and the seemingly high maintenance that horses required. The automobile's rapid popularization in America changed the urban fabric of cities and modified people’s ability to make transportation mode-choice decisions.

People could now travel when they wanted, where they wanted, and the tool was affordable. Unsurprisingly, automobile sales and vehicle miles traveled rose at a staggering rate starting in the 1940s to present. To respond to this increased traffic, devising a method to manage traffic became needed, and so traffic control devices were invented.

A Brief Overview of Traffic Control Device Innovations
Traffic signals were first spotted in the late 1860s in the United Kingdom (UK) to manage horse drawn carriages in busy downtown areas. 1915 marked the year of the first stop sign, which was invented in Michigan. The Roundabout was seen as early as the 1900s and modern roundabouts became popularized in the 1960s in the UK. Lastly, pedestrian signals were invented in the late 1930s. As the technology of cars improved, the car’s speed also increased, and therefore new infrastructure beyond traffic control devices was needed to respond to technology innovations.
1956 marked the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act by Eisenhower. This $215 Billion dollar act was the largest 10 year public works expenditure at the time, and was expected to build 41,000 miles of highway. The act was designed to provide 90% federal funds on a highway project, where states were required to raise 10% of that money. (Currently, a 50/50 split between federal and state monies is becoming more typical). Anyway, these funds successfully created vast expanses of the highways and interchanges. In addition to the inter-city highway network we utilize, these freeways also transformed the downtown area of cities. You may observe how a highways often run through the middle of American cities, which was the result of a growing desire: people wanted to travel when and where they wanted. Eventually, the high community impact of these highway plans was recognized and citizens began to reject these projects.

For example, there were plans to build a highway on Division Street in Portland, which was called the Mt. Hood Highway, which would provide people an expedited route to commute between Mt. Hood and Portland. If you look at the existing highway cutting through the middle of Portland, you may have noticed some highway stubs on the overpasses; these were meant to connect to this new highway. However, enough people in Portland opposed this plan to the point of rejection. Interestingly, the money not used for this highway project was transferred to the first light-rail line in the Portland-metro area: The Blue Line (Also constructed with 90% federal funds). Among other things, these failed highway plans raised the question: “how should we plan cities?” In other words, how do we plan cities to meet the complex needs of people, employers, and accommodate future growth?
Transportation Planning
Let’s remember why people live in cities again. The militaristic reason is now outdated, but there are still economic and social reasons for people to live in cities. For example, people like to live in different parts of a City. Some like the peace and quiet of the suburbs. Some like living in the inner-city in close proximity to a dense concentration of amenities. Some hate cities and choose to live in the rural area. While a person’s choice to live in or out of a City is social and economic, transportation professionals can influence that decision too.
For example, the downtown area has residential housing primarily in the form of apartments. The cost per unit is typically more expensive than a house in the suburbs due to the close proximity to downtown shops and major employment centers. While you may pay more to live downtown, you don’t have to take time to travel as far and therefore the actual cost of living downtown may be reduced due to the hidden savings you incur. The cost of living in the suburbs is generally inverted to living downtown. In the suburbs, there are fewer amenities close to your residence, and you pay more to travel into major employment areas, but the cost of land is inexpensive compared to a downtown environment.
In summary, there are economic and social trade-offs for where you live in a City. In some ways, transportation professionals influence the usage of the roadways in our cities to increase or decrease these costs, and can determine whether a road is a large highways or a small local road. Professionals also help decide the zoning density in an area. So, they do impact these social and economic costs.
In particular, this next story involves projects typically done by transportation professionals which influences the width of roadways or urban form.
Developer Work in Washington County
Developers constructing single family home subdivisions is a classic suburban type development which can be found in many metropolitan areas surrounding dense cities. A natural question is: How did a grassland become a planned single-family home community?
The process most likely began with population growth projections. These County forecasts are then converted into where people are living and working. Afterward, these projections are further translated into a transportation demand model to understand where people are coming to and fro. These models typically assume all roadway users are using an automobile. So therefore, the locations and sizes of roads are coarsely identified. However, more specific plans are needed to refine how wide streets should be and where they should be located to accommodate travel in an area.

An area master plan determines roadway locations, the density of development, and where amenities should be located. In the transportation realm, the road’s size and cross section have been generally determined by the Washington County design standards, which typically reference design policies established by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The reason roadways have to be built wide and curves restricted to a specific radii, is also based on a design vehicle, which was last updated in 2001. However, even though there is sufficient evidence indicating wider roads are not safer than narrow ones, there is no active mechanism to overturn the AASHTO Greenbook. The Highway Safety Manual which is also published by AASHTO unfortunately does not prescribe an ideal “Safe” roadway. But instead can compare the relative safety of roadway scenarios. For example, there is an expected crash quantity difference between a roadway with a 1’ vs. a 6’ shoulder. In summary, using the AASHTO guide, the Washington County design manual, and input from the public, the roadway network’s widths will be determined. In many ways, the area’s transportation plan reflects the “Push and Pull” of a person’s choice to live in a part of a City. The person’s choice to live in a suburb vs. a City being a “Pull”, and the decision to establish a particular development's density in an area is the agency’s decision "Push” decision.

In summary, this is a good example of how transportation professionals can become involved in project work in an area-master plan. The plan begins with creating a transportation demand model. Then area master plans are performed, which eventually forms the roadway locations and widths based on the standards at the time. The last step is for an engineer to design and build those specifications.
Working on National Documents
Like the nationally recognized AASHTO greenbook mentioned before, national design guidance has a huge influence on what infrastructure is permissible in the United States. Transportation professionals will become involved in the national community, to work on such documents as NCHRP 672: Roundabouts, an informational guide. This document provides a snapshot of the best practices to plan, engineer, and operate roundabouts in America. This guide provides information on contextual appropriateness, operational performance, and inscribed diameter widths of roundabouts. This means that some roundabouts may not fit in an area if there right of way constraints. And if there was different documentation, roundabouts might fit in an area, but perhaps with other safety- or operational-related consequences. Further, not being able to install a roundabout also influences what traffic control device should be installed, which is perhaps a reason why there are very few urban roundabouts in America.
I’ve outlined why cities exist for primarily economic and social reasons. Based on these reasons, we are a part of cities and contribute to them, which we do so in the form of our dollars but also in the way we choose to live. Sometimes the choice is easy (economic), and sometimes the choice is more blurry (social). Cities are also locations where traffic can occur which is primarily caused by the automobile, and thus we have a job. So much work we do glorifies the Automobile, from the ability for every American to operate one, to the infrastructure providing every American to drive 65 miles per hour across the country. While the rules of why we build roads wide and fast have been established, transportation professionals can still influence the contents of these documents. We can have an impact on how cities form based on what we know. It is possible to change.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The City of Houten – The Palo Alto of The Netherlands, but a Little Nicer

Modern environmentalists and transportation planners have often dreamt of places which require no automobiles to move yourself from point A to B. In the City of Houten, this dream has come true. Houten is located south of Utrect in The Netherlands and has approximately 50,000 people where driving within the City takes longer than bicycling. Travel with me through Houten to not only explore the fantastic facilities, but also discuss the social implications of these facilities on the a child's quality of life and compare these facilities with a similar suburban City of Palo Alto.

This is one of the 'Main Streets' of Houten. This street is peculiar because there are no vehicles in sight and the street is rather narrow. The fact of the matter is this street is supposed to carry no cars, only people, bikes, and the occasional moped. Bicycle travel is the highest on the food chain in Houten. Here is another scene:

Yes, speed bumps for bicyclists, which are usually installed to indicate a difference of road character. In this case, the speed bumps are used for a neighboring elementary school. These roadway obstacles are also used for motorists, but in America we would rarely see them for bicyclists only. Fascinating. Let's wander further through this City:

Translation: Cars are Guests. In other words, Cars must yield to bikes.
As you look down the intentionally narrow street, two vehicles can hardly pass each other head on, which is important to force drivers to drive slower to pass each other. Furthermore, a more narrow street prevents cars to pass bicyclists. But they couldn't anyway because cars passing bicyclists is illegal on this street. Am I dreaming still? What's next!?

Wait, this picture illustrates a typical roundabout! Where are the bikes? Wait, you aren't allowed as a pedestrian or bike up here? Look a little further...

There is basically a roundabout just for bikes under the roundabout for cars. Whoa. They double stuffed this intersection like a double stuffed Oreo? Delicious. Here is also another video of my riding around the middle. Beware, the movie is silly.


What's not silly is the tender loving care for cyclists by constructing a roundabout which completely separates cars and bikes. Okay, the show of Houten is almost over, only a few other showcase pictures.

The weather was sunny and about 70 degrees, good weather for a beach trip all in the City of Houten! Here there were kids playing devoid of their parental units. Kids playing without adult supervision is an interesting concept which requires further discussion. So let's take a detour of the facility showcase and move to a discussion mode with starts with a personal story.

I grew up in Palo Alto, one of the 'premiere' suburbs of the bay area so I'm told. Biking around as a kid was really easy, I thought, and seemed safe. My mom told me otherwise and said other parents were shocked when they found out I was wheeling around on my bike.

This is Bryant Street which is one of Palo Alto's 'Bicycle Boulevards'. Cars can't go through. Palo Alto was also named a bicycle friendly City in 2003 by the American League of Bicyclists.

Apparently some parents thought the streets of Palo Alto were not safe and instead drove and picked up their kid every day. I won't forget the queues of cars waiting at the elementary, middle, and high schools. Anyway, remembering this story combined with Houten's facilities pops the popcorn kernals in my brain so I wonder: 1) What is the importance of independence as a kid? 2) How does infrastructure helps a kid's independence? 3) How does Houten construct facilities correctly and what should Americans know? First, let's go back to the beach of Houten.

Quite a few people on the trip commented while at the beach at Houten and was paraphrased like “Wow! Kid's can simply go the beach or ride around town and don't need parents to look over their shoulder.”

In particular, Kate Drennan (Urban Explorer from Portland) told me about a collection of thoughts she accumulated over the years about the importance of 'unstructured' play time. Kate explains. “Children learn how to make their own decisions when with other kids and without the presence of parents. They also learn about social structures and how they work, which means they may have conflicts with each other”. Does the reader remember the classes we took on conflict resolution in elementary school? These courses were needed because children are inexperienced in dealing with conflicts. However, kids need experience. If kids don't have the opportunity to make their own decisions during 'unstructured' play time they will not gain experience. Furthermore, if kids don't gain conflict resolution experience by making decisions on their own, kids do not gain independence. The more common alternative is parental supervision during play time which would intuitively prevent conflicts from becoming full blown. And how do kids have unstructured play time? I think the environment (infrastructure) is a large contributing factor to unstructured play time.

Caption: The 'local' streets of Houten. The blue bicycle sign with the strikethrough simply means the dedicated bike street is over. But, the fietstraat (cars are guests) is just after the dedicated street is over, so don't worry, as a cyclist, you are still prioritized!

Houten makes bicycling as safe as breathing by way of the bicycle paths leading to every destination: schools, the three downtown areas, the beach, and all housing developments. If there isn't a dedicated bicycle path characterized by not being able to see automobiles, the other option isn't bad and the cars are 'guests' and must let bicyclists do whatever they want, because in many ways, they can't even physically pass the cyclist given the roadway width is so narrow. Construction of these bicycle only paths are important because not only will kids be safe riding on them, parents will know their kids will be safe on them. Said another way, the parents will know their kids will be safe in their local environment. Infrastructure is important because with roadway environment perceived to be unsafe, of course you don't want your kid out and about!

This is a single family house off of a canal and Fietstraat, which actually acts more like a dedicated bike facility.

In summary, how did Houten construct a City correctly?
A) Restricting automobile travel. In Houten, you can't cut through the City; no roads will get you there. But you can bike there!
B) Kids are safe biking (or walking) to play with their friends.
C) Parents will know their kids will be safe because the environment is safe.
D) Kids can learn at an earlier age to make their own decisions and gain experience being more independent.
Overall, Houten has appeared to design their City well.

On the contrary, did Houten construct their City incorrectly? Well, If we compare Houten as a 'suburb' of Utrect with other suburbs of large American cities we find none of the suburbs with the exception of Davis, California even consider the bicycle as a viable means of every day transportation. Houten is also a 'planned' community, where almost the entire City was built post 1990s (Exception: old town), so there is little history or culture, or identity because of the rapid growth. Lastly, even though there is excellent rail transit access to Utrecht (the city is centered around the train station, which is 15 min away), one may feel like you are in a bubble in Houten (I'm not sure the bubble phenomena is negative or positive or just is). My general thoughts about suburbs when you compare Houten vs. a Palo Alto: Houten is leagues better from a safety and environmental (emissions and comfort) point of view.

*Insert aerial of Houten vs. Palo Alto at the same scale. Include bicycle facilities
Caption: Houten and Palo Alto are about the same size and population, yet, Houten has much better bicycle facilities.

As our group tour exits Houten's magical bubble and I snap back into the real world I don't wonder why we can't build more Houtens, but rather I wonder why we don't try to retrofit more cities like Houten. The Dutch appear to be very satisfied with Houten's safety performance and have copied the exceptional to other Dutch cities. Houten has been setup so kids can gain valuable social experience via unstructured play, which would have been difficult because of the lack of safe facilities to roam. Lastly, Houten gives parents assurance their kids will be safe because of the safe facilities. So instead of my mom's friends being shocked of a kid roaming on a bike, I'd like my mom to be shocked of kids who don't let their kids out to roam by bike. We can do better for our American cities and children. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Awesome, Funny, and Weird of Europe: Part 1 of 2

These are sights from Europe which are either super awesome, funny, or simply strange which simultaneously deserve their own place on the interwebs for the world to see. Enjoy.

1. This is either the best way to point people in your store or knock their eyes out.

2. You can throw trash away while riding your bike. Not only is this fun but you are saving the world at the same time!

3. A funny suit is recommended past this point

4. The Dutch make the deadliest coffee

The next three are bikes:

5. My other bike is a bigger cargo bike

6. One example of art of people on bikes. The Dutch are appreciators!

7. The boozz bike. Auto-stabilizing with high beer carrying capacity.

8a. Before: A surface for papers       -        8b. After: A Piano. Awesome.

9. We don't know why sales are so low!

10. Beware, but if you catch the second wave, you might have fun.

11. Raw Herring. A Dutch Specialty

12. Cat on Leash. Keep Amsterdam Weird.

13. Superman is a thing in The Netherlands.

14. So are grown-up bouncy houses, apparently. BTW, this was really awesome.

The next three are bikes again:

15. I got a bike in the mail! Delivered by bike!

16. Built in light included! Removal not recommended for structural purposes.

17. Kidical mass is a Dutch standard.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Transportation Safety – Where the Dutch Have Surpassed the Americans

The Netherlands is the safest place in the world to operate your bicycle according to the following statistics.
Yet, they still have a murkier past.

This was the first ghost bike I found from my travels throughout Europe. This doesn't mean there aren't many traffic deaths by bike. This could simply mean citizens don't commemorate their deceased in bicycle form as does Portland and other parts of America. Dwelling on the previous point however, I will discuss safety philosophy of the Dutch and America.

In the 1960s The Netherlands was becoming more modern, i.e., citizens were affording cars. But while vehicles increased on the road as a stamp of progress, cyclists did not feel as safe on the road . "A 56-year-old office worker told the reporter, 'Mister, when I'm riding my bike, i'm never sure of my life.' ... 'On the bike, it's slowly becoming crazy.' "(In the City of Bikes, Pete Jordan, page 294, 2013). Citizen experiences and crash statistics indicate a decrease in perceived safety and increase in crashes in The Netherlands. Long story short, The Netherlands changed and sought to reduce traffic deaths.

In 1960 there were over 400 children killed by vehicles. In 2010, there were 14. In America, I don't know the number of deaths by children in 1960s, but the first graphic in this post illustrates the relative safety of cyclists comparing America to The Netherlands. Basically the Dutch citizens are much safer than America. The Dutch made many changes in policies which influenced how people traveled and ultimately their safety. I believe there are facilities which led toward safer roadways: the separated kind (cycletracks and side paths).

Here is a picture of a typical cycletrack in The Netherlands:

The cycle track is typically constructed in urban environments whereas the side path is implemented in rural environments.

The side path is also typically two-way and straddles one side of the roadway, as opposed to cycle tracks which are usually one-way and are on both sides of the street. The side path is approximately 10 feet wide.

Notice how there is a completely different facility for the bicycle as there is for the automobile. The vehicle-bicycle (and vehicle-pedestrian) conflict will occur at driveways or intersections. Also notice how both facilities assume the bicycle will not be present on the vehicle facility because there is a lack of shoulder which are present in typical American facilities.

Does the side path or cycle track look inviting for peds and bikes? Or does the sight of this make engineers quiver?

What are your feelings about this roadway facility on Highway 99W between McMinnville and Salem, Oregon?

There is an approximate 5 foot shoulder on both sides of the road as opposed to an approximate 10 foot wide sidepath as shown on the Dutch facility. Which facility do you think is better for all users of the roadway?

I pose these questions to understand why Americans do not accept side paths. Side paths (or cycle tracks for that matter) are currently not recommended by our guiding engineering manuals for safety concerns of automobiles entering and exiting driveways and intersections. A fair concern, but I believe a motorist will rarely use their driveway at the precise time a cyclist is present. More importantly, many motorists pass a cyclist in rural situations because the motorist is traveling much faster. In other words, there are less conflicts at driveways than there are on the roadway. If this logic holds true, the American facility is less safe for pedestrians and bicyclists than the Dutch facility. Like the Dutch have elegantly demonstrated, something can be done.

The Dutch have reduced the number of children's deaths by 35 fold over 50 years. I'd like to show the Dutch that Americans can reduce the number of children's deaths by 100 fold over 25 years. This is worth doing and I believe separation of vehicles and people/bicyclists is where to start.

PS: The side paths in The Netherlands are literally everywhere. America has catching up to do.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

European Toilets!

There are many different types toilets in Europe; many of them two flush systems. I love it. Why must we flush extra water when we don't need it! The toilet architecture is quite different in Europe, and I've taken pictures of every full toilet I've been too (no urinals except for one brilliant one).

Hope you feel relieved as I have by these toilets, ha.

Arlon, Belgium. Airbnb.

Charleroi, Belgium. Artist's home.

Charleroi, Belgium. Old house. Later I broke the green top...

Charleroi, Belgium. Longer is better? 

Charleroi, Belgium. Different artist's house.

If you can notice, the toilet paper piece is longer than American style! The extra centimeters are worth it.

Bruxelles, Belgium. Cousin's house in a newer building.

Bruxelles, Belgium. Cousin's house in an older house.

Bruxelles, Belgium. Don't use the small one. Trust me.

Bruxelles, Belgium. Old style house.

Bruxelles, Belgium. Fancy restaurant.

Mechelen, Belgium. This toilet was also very tall!

North Belgium. I don't remember where. I think I was exhausted. but why the skew?

Delft, The Netherlands. Only one flush, but looks like two!

TU Delft Engineering Building, The Netherlands

TU Delft Engineering Building, The Netherlands

Rijswijk, The Netherlands. 

A greenhouse, The Netherlands

Delft, The Netherlands. City hall. Blue light is from ultraviolet light; so sanitary!

Wish I knew, The Netherlands

Delft, The Netherlands. Brilliant! so many guys at once with the size of one Honeybucket. 

Delft, The Netherlands. The view from inside. No free show this time.

?, The Netherlands. But intuitive, no?

Delft, The Netherlands. Old style housing. Note the flat shallow basin in the bowl. Weird.

Giethoorn, The Netherlands. Restaurant.